First lady Laura Bush convened a two-day summit yesterday of the nation’s top reading, education and child-development specialists, highlighting research on ways to help preschool children learn basic language skills.
The conference, held at Georgetown University’s stately Gaston Hall, carried a highbrow title: The White House Summit on Early Childhood Cognitive Development. But like any good teacher, Mrs. Bush, a former educator and librarian, broke through the scholarly rhetoric to offer a lesson of her own to those responsible for taking care of youngsters.
“This is actually about children’s brain development,” she explained, “and about ways grandparents, parents, caregivers, day care workers and Head Start teachers can help children so that when they start school, they are ready to learn.
“There’s a lot of new research that shows that children who have been read to from when they are infants, who have been talked directly to, enter school with a much larger vocabulary, really ready to learn to read,” said Mrs. Bush.
The first lady said science has determined that common-sense practices used by many parents are vital to helping children succeed as they enter the classroom.
All parents, whether affluent or poor, can practice basic pre-reading skills with their youngsters, she said, including reading books, reciting nursery rhymes and singing songs.
“As busy as they are, when they are driving their car they can play games, looking at billboards and pointing out letters,” Mrs. Bush said. “While they are pushing around the grocery carts, they can show their children the words that are on the labels [of food].
“All of these are ways to let your children know that the words they see everywhere are what they are going to read.”
The first lady, who taught at an elementary school in Texas and worked as a school librarian, has used her time in the White House to take up the causes of early learning, literacy and teacher recruitment. Since her husband became president, she has kicked off a preschool reading program and traveled the nation to tout teacher-training programs such as Teach for America and Troops to Teachers.
Mrs. Bush’s high profile and personal experience as an educator have given her an added boost of credibility as she has promoted her key issues, said Education Secretary Rod Paige, who served as co-host of the summit along with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.
“Her conduct now is driven by her authentic interest in this issue,” Mr. Paige said. “I think this is what, I dare say, she was called to do.”
Mrs. Bush modeled the early learning summit on one she hosted in 1998 when her husband was the governor of Texas. After that event, the state legislature significantly increased funding for Head Start and teacher-training programs, she said.
With opinion polls showing strong approval of her conduct as first lady, Mrs. Bush plans to become even more involved, hosting similar child-development summits in different locations around the country.
Monday, she will kick off yet another program modeled on work she has done in her home state. Partnering with the Library of Congress, Mrs. Bush will announce plans for the first National Book Festival here Sept. 8 as a way to encourage Americans to take advantage of their local libraries.
In addition, Mrs. Bush said in an interview that she is starting her own foundation to help raise money to support the nation’s libraries.
Yesterday, she asked the summit’s 500 participants to support teachers with their knowledge and expertise.
“Teachers, especially pre-K and early education teachers need to have the latest information on the science of learning to reach in order to teach effectively,” Mrs. Bush said.
“The topic of our children rises above partisan politics and turf battles,” she added. “We all have a duty to call attention to the science and seriousness of early childhood cognitive development because the years between birth and age 5 are the foundation upon which successful lives are built.”